A new coronavirus variant recently identified in Botswana has been classified as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization and given the Greek alphabet name “omicron.”

The B.1.1.529 variant is responsible for a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in South Africa, according to public health officials there. Overall case numbers are currently low in South Africa, but omicron quickly overtook the prevalent delta variant there.

Omicron, first reported publicly three days ago, was detected “a few weeks ago,” epidemiologist Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, who is the COVID-19 technical lead at the World Health Organization, said in a video distributed by the organization on Twitter.

“This variant has a large number of mutations, and some of these mutations have some worrying characteristics. Right now, there are many studies that are underway,” Van Kerkhove said.

Omicron has more than 30 mutations — an unusually high number — and health officials are concerned it will spread more rapidly and has the potential to evade immunity from previous infection and vaccination.

The U.S. today joined several other countries in banning travel from South Africa and other countries in the southern region of the African continent. The U.S. travel ban goes into effect Monday.

Viruses frequently mutate and the virus that causes COVID-19 has mutated repeatedly since it was initially identified in 2019. Only a few variants have become widespread.

WHO uses a tiered classification system for variants: variants under investigation, variants of interest and variants of concern.

Variants of interest are those: with genetic changes that are predicted or known to affect virus characteristics such as transmissibility, disease severity, immune escape, diagnostic or therapeutic escape; and identified to cause significant community transmission or multiple COVID-19 clusters, in multiple countries with increasing relative prevalence alongside increasing number of cases over time, or other apparent epidemiological impacts to suggest an emerging risk to global public health.

Variants of concern have the same traits as variants of interest and, in addition: exhibit an increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology; or an increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation; or a decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics. For simplicity’s sake, the WHO names variants of concern for letters of the Greek alphabet.

Delta, a variant of concern first identified in India in December 2020, now accounts for more than 90% of all COVID infections globally. It is more contagious and more likely to cause severe illness and death than both the original strain of the virus, first reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019, and the the alpha variant, a variant of concern identified in the United Kingdom in September 2020. The alpha variant did not become dominant in all regions of the world, including in the U.S. The delta variant quickly did.

So far, omicron variant infections are known to have been detected in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong, according to the World Health Organization.

Once a variant is classified as a variant of concern, epidemiologists work on genomic sequencing to detect places where it is circulating.

Investigations will be undertaken to determine whether there are changes in disease severity associated with omicron and whether the existing vaccines will be effective against the new variant.

“It will take days to weeks for some of these studies to be undertaken. It’s really important that these studies are done and they’re done comprehensively,” the WHO’s Van Kerkhove said. “As soon as we have more information, we will make that information public, but it’s important to know that there’s a lot that you could do to keep yourself and your loved ones safe,” she said.

“What’s really important as an individual is to lower your exposure,” Van Kerkhove said. “These proven public health measures have never been more important: distancing, wearing of a mask, making sure that it’s over your nose and mouth, with clean hands, making sure you avoid crowded spaces…and when it’s your turn, get vaccinated,” she said.

COVID infections have been on the rise in the U.S. and around the world. In New York, the number of new daily cases on a seven-day rolling average has doubled in the past month, despite the percentage of people age 12 and up who are fully vaccinated reaching nearly 80%. In Suffolk County, the number of new daily cases on a seven-day rolling average rose from 314 to 572 between Oct. 24 and Nov. 24.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said today the state’s Wadsworth Center Laboratory will continue to actively monitor COVID-19 virus samples from around the state to compare sequences and identify circulating variants. Currently the delta variant is responsible for 100% of COVID-19 infections in the state, according to the State Department of Health.

State health officials are not surprised new variants are emerging and may likely end up in New York, Hochul said in an emailed statement.

“I want to remind New Yorkers to continue taking the precautionary steps we know reduce the spread of this deadly virus: wear a mask in indoor public places, use proper hand hygiene, get tested, and stay home when sick,” the governor said. “The vaccine also remains one of our greatest weapons in fighting the pandemic, and this news further emphasizes the need for each of us to get vaccinated and get the booster if you’re fully vaccinated,” she said.

The U.S. announced a travel ban from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. The ban does not apply to U.S. citizens and legal residents. The U.S. action today followed similar bans adopted by the European Union, the United Kingdom and Israel.

The South African health minister today called the travel restrictions unjustified and against the norms and standards of the World Health Organization, suggesting that South Africa was being punished for its transparency.

Alarm about the new variant of concern sent financial markets around the world tumbling today. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed 905 points lower, down 2.53%. The S&P 500 was also down 2%.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.